SNELLVILLE - After surprising host South Gwinnett by jumping out to a big early lead, Central Gwinnett's boys had to fight hard to keep it in Tuesday's quarterfinal of the Region 8-AAAAA basketball tournament.
Devonta White and the Black Knights made sure they weren't going to let their hard work go unrewarded.
White came up huge in the second half to help Central beat back every one of South's numerous rally attempts as the Black Knights held off the Comets 61-50 at South.
The 5-foot-11 sophomore finished with game highs of 21 points and five assists as Central (12-13) earned a spot in the tournament semifinals Friday against Parkview.
The Black Knights also earned a Class AAAAA state tournament berth despite low expectations at the beginning of the season due to graduation and transfer losses from last year. South's season ends at 15-10.
"For this group to stay together and make it (to state), it's huge," Central coach David Allen said.
Playing together as a team helped the Black Knights roll off a 20-2 run over the final 5:04 of the first quarter - including 10 points from White and seven more from reserve Quentavius Wimes - to claim a 20-4 lead after 8 minutes.
The lead reached as much as 21 points in the second quarter and Central still seemed in complete control despite a transition layup by Kevon Jenkins with 15 seconds left in the first half that pulled South to within 33-17 at intermission.
But Allen knew his team couldn't get too comfortable despite a 16-point lead.
"I told them at the half (South was) going to make a run," Allen said. "We just had to weather it."
The Comets did come out of the gates in the second half as quickly as Central did in the first, scoring twice in the first 1:07 of the third quarter to pull to within 33-21 after a Xavier Chargois' driving layup.
After letting several chances to pull even closer slip through their fingers with turnovers - some of South's 19 miscues on the night - the Comets mounted another challenge.
Chargois' transition layup with three seconds left in the quarter pulled South to within 45-35 and Nick Gil added two layups to cut Central's lead to just 45-39 with 4:50 left to play.
But White wasn't about to let the Black Knights fold.
After Dzman Colquitt answered with a stickback, White came up with steals on South's next two possessions.
He converted one into a pair of free throws, while Prinz Barimah eventually cashed the other turnover with a jumper off an assist from White.
"We understood good teams (like South) will make runs," White said. "We just had to be the better team to stay on top."
The Central point guard then hit two more shots from the line to complete an 8-0 run that pushed the Black Knights' lead back to 14 at 63-49 with 2:33 left.
"Too many turnovers," South coach Emmett Rouse said. "We got (Central's lead) down to six and then we turned the ball over three times in a row ... We've been battling turnovers all year long."
Central then connected on 6 of 8 free throws in the final 1:06 to put the game away. In all, the Black Knights were 18-for-22 from the line.
Barimah joined White in double figures for Central with 13 points, while Brian Williams chipped in nine points and Colquitt pulled down six rebounds despite foul trouble.
Chargois led South with 13 points. Nick Gil contributed 12 points and six rebounds, while Mario Vasser finished with eight points and eight rebounds and Adonis Harrison chipped in eight points and seven boards.
Meadowcreek 82, Shiloh 72
The defending region champion Mustangs (18-8) rallied from an 18-point deficit midway through the third quarter to advance into Friday's 5:30 p.m. semifinal against Berkmar.
Teondre Williams had 22 points and nine rebounds, while Dwayne Robinson scored 21 points and added 11 rebounds and three steals.
Most of that work came after Shiloh had taken as much as a 54-36 lead with 4:30 left in the third quarter.
"I told my seniors, 'Is this the way you want to go out?'" Meadowcreek coach Billy Davis said. "They looked back at me and said, 'We got you, coach.' When I saw that look in their eyes, I knew we were going to come back."
Paced by one of those seniors - Williams - the Mustangs charged back by connecting on six of their eight 3-pointers in the second half.
Charles Johnson (11 points) and Thomas Hines (10) joined Williams and Robinson in double figures for Meadowcreek.
Zachary Lurry led Shiloh with 11 points, while Cedric Eichelberger and Andre Crittendon each added 10 points for the Generals.
Berkmar 53, Brookwood 41
The upstart Broncos hung around well into the fourth quarter, but the Patriots (19-5) connected on 10 of 14 free throws down the stretch to pull away and advance into Friday's semifinal against Meadowcreek.
"This time of year, you find out what you're made of," Berkmar coach Tommy McWhorter said. "You have to play every possession one at a time and play good defense."
Brookwood actually tied the game 37-37 after three free throws by Nate Hamilton in the first minute of the fourth quarter.
However, Wesley Witherspoon answered with a basket and a pair of free throws on Berkmar's next two possessions to put the Patriots up for good.
"He showed a little toughness," McWhorter said of the 6-8 senior. "If he's going to get that kind of attention, he's going to have to hit shots like that. He plays tough. He plays hard. He plays to win."
Witherspoon led the Patriots with 22 points, while Hamilton led Brookwood with 10 points.